The mystery of the Luristan Bronzes still puzzles archaeologists

Iron Age artifacts from the Zagros Mountains of Iran began to capture the world's attention in the 1930s, but scholars today are still debating who crafted them.

A horned figure tames mythical beasts in this elaborate cheekpiece from a horse’s bit, produced in Luristan in about 700 B.C.
Artokoloro/Alamy

When exquisite bronze figures be­gan flood­ing the antiquities market in the late 1920s, nobody knew much about them. Artworks of people and ani­mals, embossed bronze cups, and delicate pins thrilled dealers, who were awed by their beauty. Inquiries were made about their origins, but answers were somewhat vague. Rather than name a specific settlement or civi­lization, dealers would only indicate a region in the Zag­ros Mountains: Luristan (located in western Iran and known today as Lorestan).

The deluge of Luristan bronzes began in fall 1928 in the sleepy town of Harsin, some 20 miles east of Kermanshah. A local farmer uncovered several beautiful bronze objects in his fields and sold them. Word of his finds spread, and soon the town filled with dealers who bought these works of art and then sold them on to museums and private collec­tions. It was a profitable ar­rangement that suited many parties, and very little was done to stop it.

Great interest in exca­vating these bronzes arose among both academics and locals. André Godard, the di­rector of the Iranian Archae­ological Service in 1928, de­scribed the method used by the locals to detect a site to excavate. First they found a spring. Once that was locat­ed, there was a high proba­bility of finding a settlement nearby with a cemetery. The formula was simple and effective: Look for a water source, and an ancient ne­cropolis will not be far away.

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